07/29/2013 05:55 EDT | Updated 09/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Consensual Rape and the Culture of Victim Blaming

This isn't the blog post I intended to write as my first contribution to Huffington Post Alberta. A lover of the arts, I wanted to be lightness and color, attempting--in my own way--to bring more much deserved attention to Calgary's burgeoning arts and culture scene. But then, things happen that derail me. Things like the 2013 Wimbledon women's champion--Marion Bartoli--being verbally assaulted online because she's "too ugly to win"(more on that later) and Marte Deborah Dalelv, of Norway, being acquitted of consensual rape following a business trip to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Consensual rape? I had to stop and ponder this. Is there such a thing? How can this be? The more I questioned it, the more I realized I would have to break out of my arts-and-culture mold and address the issue staring me in the face. When I first took to the Internet to see what--if any--definition of "consensual rape" was available, I stumbled upon an interesting piece about Consensual Rape in California. Being neither a lawyer nor a Californian, I can't and won't comment on the accuracy of the information, but a few lines in particular caught my eye:

When a victim is forced to submit to continued intercourse for a period after she has revoked her original consent, the crime of rape is committed. (People v. Roundtree)... Isn't it clear that any woman who would change her mind about having sex in the middle of having sex has already started to feel "violated?" If she subjectively suddenly feels raped, then could any haste in withdrawing be fast enough for her?

And this one:

A false accusation is...a great way to 1) make money on a civil suit; 2) even the score if the spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend cheats on you; 3) vent your anger for being jilted; 4) even the score for the other having had you arrested previously or having gotten a restraining order against you; and of course 5) there is just plain old mental illness which causes all kinds of erratic behavior.

Let me be clear--there is no such thing as consensual rape (outside of any rape fantasy arrangements couples might have behind closed doors, that is. I'm not judging--maybe it's a Fifty Shades of Grey thing?). The brutal truth is that the idea of "consensual rape" is nothing more an attempt to rationalize aggressor privilege and blame the victim. Rape is rape is rape. Do some victims make false allegations? Certainly. But does this mean that every victim is lying? Certainly not. As any rational individual will tell you, "correlation does not imply causation", and we can't simply paint all cases with the same brush.

Despite the continued best efforts of the world's forward-thinking men and women, the sad truth is that we--right now, in Alberta--live in a society of victim blaming (and shaming). In Canada alone, one woman is sexually assaulted by forced intercourse every 17 minutes (Rape Victims Support Network), which illustrates the important fact that rape happens everywhere, including friendly, peaceful, developed Canada. Other interesting* stats:

  • 80% of assaults happen in the victim's home

  • 70% of rapes committed are done so by a perpetrator the victim knows--not a stranger

  • One in every 17 Canadian women is raped at some point in her life

  • One four girls and one in eight boys has been sexually abused by age 18

  • According to Statistics Canada, about one in ten sexual assaults is reported to police (2004)**

Contrary to what must be popular belief, society's compulsion to "assume the victim is lying" does nothing to protect the wrongly-accused but instead serves to vilify and demean the victim--lessening the likelihood that genuine victims will step forward--and remove responsibility from the alleged perpetrator. The frightening reality is that blaming/shaming the victim continues. In 2012, the coverage of the Steubenville rape case was filthy with victim blaming and defense of the alleged attackers in both the court of public opinion and conventional media. I still don't understand how we can blame a 16-year-old girl for her own rape, but it happens. All the time.

In Alberta--and throughout the country it seems--there's a public campaign to remind men that Sex without consent equals sexual assault, and this seems to be making people angry. In Edmonton, the men's activist group, Men's Rights Edmonton has created quite a hubbub recently with their own poster campaign--which I haven't seen myself--that's apparently a response to the Don't be that guy campaign. Instead, the Men's Rights Edmonton posters advocate the alternative--that women not be "that girl". You know the ones: women who consent to sex and then later "cry rape" in the hopes that their name, sexual history, character and reputation will be publically dragged through the mud, resulting in a lucrative settlement.

Story continues after slideshow

Don't Be That Girl

Thankfully, the Edmonton campaign has been met with the shock and awe it deserves, but the very fact that such an opinion is still prevalent in today's society is frightening. The fact that it's necessary to launch a campaign telling men to not rape the women in their acquaintance is just as startling. Now, I'm not denying the very real fact that male sexual abuse occurs--which is apparently another concern outlined by the Men's Rights Edmonton campaign--and that it's highly stigmatized, resulting in victimized men who, like their female counterparts, cannot or do not come forward. But the pain of one group doesn't supersede the pain of another. Rather than perpetuate the notion that women victimize men by making false accusations of rape, Men's Rights Edmonton should be the kind of organization to recognize that men's rights are women's rights, and vice-versa; to be the kind of organization leading the charge for equality by encouraging male and female victims to step forward; by offering much needed support; to lead by example and not being "that guy".

The reality is that victim blaming/shaming is detrimental to both men and women because it creates a culture of fear where victims are unable to speak about and, therefore recover from, their experience. Among other things, blaming the victim glorifies male aggression and reinforces the notion of feminine passivity; degrades both men's and women's rights to their own bodies; reinforces a host of sexual double standards; negates prosecution and punishment of attackers; and makes rape palatable. Educating men--and women--on the seemingly ambiguous ground of what constitutes sexual assault is valuable; educating everyone on the devastating effects of victim blaming is just as valuable, if not more so.

*Read: horrifying

**Note: Per Statistics Canada, sexual assault is "a term used to refer to all incidents of unwanted sexual activity, including sexual attacks and sexual touching", not just forced intercourse (rape).

Shannon McClennan has a Master of Arts in International Journalism from Leeds University, UK. Her graduate thesis, Advertisements, gender and violence: Examining violence against women in contemporary western advertising (2006) explored the use of graphic depictions of violence, abuse and sexual assault in western print advertising. She continues to take an active interest in gender relations and the gendered politics of violence.